Saturday, April 04, 2009

Recessionary Dining: High-end Restaurants Adding And Emphasizing Bars/Lounges To Help Their Bottom Line

ceiba in washington dcYesterday, the Wall Street Journal published a good piece about the growing national trend in which more and more high-end restaurants are looking to their bars to get them through the recession. Either by adding/expanding their bar and lounge areas or by offering deals. Or by doing both.

Evidence of this trend can clearly be seen locally, the most prominent instances being Barclay Prime adding a new gastropub menu, Table 31 adding Happy Nights, Morimoto adding Signature Hour, Le Bec Fin adding a $5 Happy Hour, and Lacroix adding Bar 210.

Here's an excerpt:
When chef Eric Greenspan opened the Foundry, a $1.3 million restaurant in Los Angeles, two years ago, he created a menu of high-end cuisine, showcasing the culinary skills he had honed at some of the world's top restaurants. Three months ago, Mr. Greenspan turned the restaurant into a lounge with nightly live bands, cocktail waitresses and promotions such as "fried-chicken-and-waffles night." The dining room has been banished to a back patio.

"The lounge is keeping us alive," he says.

Around the country, proprietors are turning their restaurants -- or significant parts of them -- into glorified bars. They're ripping out dining-room tables to make more bar space, applying for late-night and cabaret licenses and adding the word "bar" to their names. Top chefs are serving up bar snacks like grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs.

The reason: While consumer spending at restaurants is falling precipitously, drink orders, particularly for cheaper drinks like beer, are barely dropping off. For restaurants, it's now proving more cost-effective to serve lower-priced dishes that diners can munch on as they buy drinks.

Alain Ducasse's Benoit bistro in New York recently rolled out a bar menu that includes sliders and $1 deviled eggs. Daniel Boulud, the Manhattan chef behind one of the city's most formal restaurants, Daniel, plans to open DBGB Kitchen & Bar, featuring 24 beers on tap and homemade sausage and hot dogs, in May or June. Christophe Émé, chef and owner of Ortolan in Los Angeles, has begun calling about 100 customers a week to tell them about his new bar menu.

Even Thomas Keller's Per Se restaurant in Manhattan, where the only dinner option has been a $275, nine-course prix fixe menu, launched an a la carte menu for its lounge area last week. Unlike the main dining room, where dinner tables typically book up two months in advance, the lounge doesn't take reservations. Diners are seated around coffee tables.
The morphing of some of the nation's top dining rooms into bars and lounges with food demonstrates how dramatically and quickly consumer behavior has changed since the economy plummeted this fall. Technomic, a Chicago restaurant consultant, predicts that this year fine dining sales will plunge at least 12%, after falling 4% last year.
Beyond thrift, there is a social component to noshing at bars. Restaurateurs say patrons seem especially eager to rub shoulders with one another at the bar, rather than isolate themselves at dining-room tables.

"People want to socialize and be out; they don't want to be miserable at home," says Chris Douglass, co-owner of three Boston-area restaurants, including the 32-year-old fine-dining restaurant Icarus, which Mr. Douglass says he would like to either sell or turn into a "gastropub" -- a bar that serves high-quality food -- if he can find buyers or investors.
Pretty much spot on.

Bar Wars - To attract cash-strapped diners, restaurateurs from Alain Ducasse to Daniel Boulud are making dramatic bids to ramp up their bar business -- even if it means serving hot dogs and deviled eggs. [ Wall Street Journal via MP Philadelphia ]

[ Photo via The Wall Street Journal ]

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